U.S. Markets closed

These 4 Measures Indicate That UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH) Is Using Debt Reasonably Well

Simply Wall St

Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' So it seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We can see that UnitedHealth Group Incorporated (NYSE:UNH) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for UnitedHealth Group

What Is UnitedHealth Group's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 UnitedHealth Group had debt of US$42.3b, up from US$35.1b in one year. However, it also had US$17.3b in cash, and so its net debt is US$25.0b.

NYSE:UNH Historical Debt, October 14th 2019

A Look At UnitedHealth Group's Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that UnitedHealth Group had liabilities of US$62.3b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$46.8b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$17.3b as well as receivables valued at US$18.2b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$73.7b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since UnitedHealth Group has a huge market capitalization of US$210.5b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.

In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its interest cover). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).

UnitedHealth Group's net debt is only 1.2 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 12.1 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. And we also note warmly that UnitedHealth Group grew its EBIT by 14% last year, making its debt load easier to handle. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if UnitedHealth Group can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, UnitedHealth Group recorded free cash flow worth 78% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

Happily, UnitedHealth Group's impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. And the good news does not stop there, as its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow also supports that impression! We would also note that Healthcare industry companies like UnitedHealth Group commonly do use debt without problems. Zooming out, UnitedHealth Group seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that UnitedHealth Group insiders have bought shares recently. If you would too, then you're in luck, since today we're sharing our list of reported insider transactions for free.

When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.